Although he was born in Berchem-Sainte Agathe, Belgium, with the name of Jean-Claude Van Varenbeerg, Van Damme once called himself “Frank Cujo” when he first moved to Hollywood in 1981. When he couldn’t find work as an actor the former European Professional Karate Association’s middleweight champion decided to take English classes while working as a chauffeur, carpet layer, pizza deliverer and trainer.
Thanks to Chuck Norris he got a job as a bouncer at a nightclub and Chuck Norris also gave Van Damme his first small role as a gay hitchhiker in the movie Monaco Forever.
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In the same year Jean Claude also made a cameo appearance in Breakin’ as a break-dancer. Two years later in 1986 he finally got a role which he could use to show off his martial arts skills, playing a villain named Ivan in the low-budget movie No Retreat, No Surrender. These small roles fueled Van Damme’s desire and he began signing movie deals with anyone who was willing to take him in.
After approaching Menahem Golana, producer for Cannon Pictures outside a Beverly Hills restaurant, Van Damme demonstrated his martial arts skills right than and there. Golana was so impressed, that the producer hired him for Bloodsport. Although considered Jean Claude’s best film, the movie was actually shelved for almost two years. However Van Damme didn’t give up and he some how managed to re-cut the film and begged producers to release it. Of course they did and the rest as they say is history.
Unfortunately following the success of Bloodsport came Jean Claude’s two worse movies. First Black Eagle where JCVD plays a supporting role next to Sho Kosugi in a muddled cold war flick; and after Cyborg, where the Muscles from Brussels plays the protective escort for a half-human, half-cyborg woman whose programming contains a possible cure for a plague that’s threatening to wipe out the entire population of Earth. This film was so bad that it was made using costumes and sets from a He-Man movie sequel that was never made. The film was also responsible for Cannon Pictures going bankrupt.
The next four movies in his resume are known as fan favourites. Moving away from Sci-fi and war films, he returned with two back to basic martial arts movies; Kickboxer and Lionheart. In between he also starred in Death Warrant which is acknowledged for lifting him out of his cinematic rut. Playing an undercover cop in prison, the film delivers a perfect blend of cheap action thrills and martial arts mayhem to make every fan happy. If that wasn’t enough Van Damme for you, than maybe you would be interested in Double Impact, the first of three films where J.C. plays twins (or clones). The other two being Replicant and In Hell. Van Damme actually debuted as a producer with Double Impact (1991), his first certifiable hit, which drew a huge international audience with its gimmicky plot that doubled the actor’s screen time by having him play twin brothers.
Jean-Claude Van Damme earned an average of $70,000 per picture for his first seven leading roles. It wasn’t until Universal Soldier in 1992, that he would receive his first million dollar paycheck. From then on he made no less than $3 million per picture, peaking at $6.2 million with Street Fighter. Universal soldier is notable for it’s comedic touch and also for placing the star in combat with another foreign action star Dolph Lundgren.
At the 1992 Cannes film festival, Van Damme and Lundgren were involved in a verbal altercation that almost turned physical when both men pushed each other only to be separated. On his website, Dolph Lundgren confirmed that it was just a publicity stunt to promote the film.
Universal Soldier (1992), was panned by critics as a Terminator (1984) rip-off, but it still surpassed even the worldwide success of Double Impact. “The muscles from Brussels,” seemed on the verge of a crossover success from martial arts films to major Hollywood action star, on par with Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Van Damme hoped his starring role as an escaped convict who becomes involved with a single mother in the drama Nowhere to Run (1993) would earn the respect of moviegoers and the Hollywood establishment, but it actually drew far less crowds than his standard, non-stop fight fests. Van Damme found a successful medium ground with the sci-fi thriller Time Cop (1994), which hit blockbuster status and even had critics reluctantly admitting that the star had made some progress with his acting chops. His follow-up Sudden Death (1995), however, was lost in a sea of that year’s holiday blockbusters.
In 1993 Jean Claude began the first of several collaborations with Hong Kong directors. Acclaimed director John Woo marked his first American studio film with Van Damme in the leading role of Hard Target. Produced by Sam Raimi, the film was a success taking in 45 million worldwide. Ringo Lam than stepped in and directed Van Damme, bringing in respectable box office sales for his starring role as a French cop avenging the death of a co-worker in Maximum Risk (1996). The same year, he made his own feature directing debut with the international martial arts picture The Quest, which fared less well than most of his previous releases. Double Team (1997) and Knock Off (1998) ultimately represented minor entries in the filmography of Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, and by 1999, Van Damme’s inability to establish staying power among filmgoers led to the straight-to-video release, Inferno.
The actor went on to confess his struggle for over a decade with drug additions to sleeping pills and then cocaine. Losing his grip as a Hollywood contender he retreated to a steady stream of clichéd action films including Lam’s Replicant (2001) and In Hell (2003). The theatrical release Wake of Death earned Van Damme a few hopeful reviews, but the actor stayed below the Hollywood radar with discount video bin roles as soldiers and cops until 2008 when he surfaced unexpectedly on the art house circuit in JCVD.